Monday, September 27, 2010

The Children's Book: Why did I Force Myself to Finish Reading This?

The Children's BookThe Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I must have heard a positive review of this book on NPR or something, because I had it on my Amazon wish list and had completely forgotten about it by the time my husband bought it for me.  I started reading The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt at the beach last month, and have been reading it off and on.  In the beginning, I was enjoying the historical background of the Art Nouveau movement and European Socialism, but I was annoyed by all of the incest, sexual abuse, and spouse-sharing in the novel.  At times I felt like it was the Jerry Springer show, set in the early Edwardian era. Which is a shame, because the writing is beautiful, and there doesn't seem to be any literary/artistic merit to this particular variety of smuttiness.  By comparison, when an author like Margaret Atwood includes disturbing sexual material in a novel, she does it with purpose, to draw an attention to an evil that exists in the world and inspire readers to rebel against it, and to explore the far-reaching effects of those evils.  In this novel, however, the sordid smut adds little other than to say "bad things happened back then, too," and it detracts from the substance of the novel.

I finally finished reading this book yesterday. Reading the acknowledgements at the end helped me figure out what exactly I disliked most about this book. The author was too ambitious, trying to cram all of her research into this novel about the history of various radical and pre-revolutionary groups, the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the history of Art Nouveau and decorative pottery, the history of women in medicine and the battle for women's suffrage, the history of trench warfare in the first World War...  I'm all in favor of well-researched historical fiction, but in order to be successful, the history needs to be woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. In The Children's Book, I felt that Byatt switched back and forth quite abruptly between the story line and the historical background, stalling the momentum of the plot.  It was kind of like a TV miniseries where the drama is continually interrupted by an annoying announcer's voice saying, "And now, a word from our sponsors..." I think some of the excessive, unnecessary (to the novel) historical information should have been edited out to allow room for more character development.  Perhaps Byatt could then have written a second book, a straight cultural and political history of the era she explored in her novel.

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